[Tech tips] Drowning in information, part II

In my previous post on information management, I covered some general tools that can help you manage passwords, bookmarks, file storage, etc.

Now we’ll dig deeper, and turn to the scholarly information you need to get under control.  There are bibliographical references.  Books.  Articles.  Websites. Massive numbers of PDF files.  Maybe your home-grown system (or lack thereof) is not working for you any longer.  Time to turn to some tools that might help.

Caveat: You do not want to wait until the night before your paper is due to start using these tools.  These are powerful tools, but they have a bit of a learning curve.  Start experimenting with them early, at the very beginning stages of your research.  That way, you will become comfortable with them, and they will work for you, not against you.  I know – spending a few hours of your precious free time figuring out how to use bibliographical management software does not sound like anyone’s idea of a good time. Just put on some tv reruns or fire up your music playlist and mess around with the software. You’ll thank yourself later.

Qiqqa

Qiqqa (pronounced “Quicker”) has many features, but, at its heart, it is a tool for managing PDFs.  Some of us remember when hard drives were smaller, and we had to save documents on external media. When we did that, we probably tried to save them on discs organized by topic.  Now our hard drives are massive, so we save every PDF that comes down the pike.  That’s fine and dandy, until you want to find one of them, especially when they have filenames like G67fbChui8734.pdf. That’s where Qiqqa enters the picture. Watch this video and be amazed.  Qiqqa is a tool for organizing your PDFs, and doing blazingly fast searches on them – whether you have a few dozen or a few thousand. One (of the many!) really awesome features of Qiqqa is that it runs optical character recognition on old PDFs, or PDFs created as scans, so that they are fully searchable.   You can add comments to documents, and those comments are searched when you do a full-text search.  Qiqqa can also be synched between multiple computers, which is great for those of us doing research in the workplace and at home. I just discovered Qiqqa myself, and I am already a convert.  I don’t know how I managed graduate school without it.  (Only drawback?  It’s currently only available for Windows.)

EasyBib (library link) (company website)

The library has an EasyBib premium subscription for our patrons.  EasyBib is a citation tool that can work with APA, Chicago/Turabian, and MLA citation formats. If you’re citing a website, all you have to do is plug in the URL, and it will pull information from the site into your bibliography.  If you want to cite a book, you search for the book in the search box on their page, click on the correct book, and EasyBib creates the citation for you.  Similarly, you can search for articles in their search box, and EasyBib will automatically generate a citation.  Once you have a list of citations ready, EasyBib will export the citation list, in proper format and alphabetical order, right into your Word document. EasyBib is probably the citation manager that is easiest to master, but I find I end up having to edit just about every citation it tries to import.  It also doesn’t have some of the more advanced features available in the other citation managers I’ll mention below.  Verdict?  Great for a short paper.  Not for advanced papers with multiple sources.

RefWorks (library link) (company website)

RefWorks also isn’t free, but the library has a subscription to this too.  RefWorks has a citation tool, but that’s just part of what it does.  Besides producing a bibliography, RefWorks is designed to help you manage references.  Say you are working on several papers at once, each requiring a number of references.  You can create folders inside RefWorks, and store citations in each folder, so you don’t end up with a jumbled list of references.  Even better – you can search the references you have stored.  Even better than that – many articles you add to RefWorks will have an “ArticleLinker” button.  Click on that button, and RefWorks will try to find the article for you again in a database.  (Handy if you lost your copy!)  You can share lists of citations with others, which is great for group projects.  But one of the best features of all is that many of the databases we use in the library – including the catalog – allow you to export information into RefWorks with a few clicks, so you don’t have to type citation information into the RefWorks database. RefWorks also features a tool (“Write-N-Cite”) for creating citations in the body of your paper. The library maintains a help page on using RefWorks.

Zotero

Zotero is a free tool for collecting, organizing, citing, and sharing research sources.  It works through a small program that lives in your browser.  (It currently works with the Firefox browser.) When you enter an item into your list of references, you can attach a file to the citation, which is a really handy way to store PDF copies of articles.  You can also link to webpages in the same way.  There is room for you to write notes for the citation, so you can jot down why you thought the resource was important. Or, maybe you’d like to pull out a few important quotes and keep them in the notes section.  Zotero can search anything that is included in the database you’ve created, so you can search your articles and notes.  (That is so much better than pulling your hair out when you can’t remember where you read that quote that would pull your paper together!)  Zotero can be backed up online so that you can access your Zotero library from anywhere. Zotero is pretty powerful, and if you are embarking on a large research project, you should give it a try.  Check out the video tour here.  Good news: they are working on a desktop version of Zotero that works with Safari and Chrome browsers.

Connotea

Connotea is another free reference manager. It works through a bookmarklet you install in your browser.  (This works in any browser.)  While it has ties to the science community, it is not just for scientists.  One of the benefits of Connotea is that it has a social component to it.  When you search references in your Connotea library, you can search not only your library, but other user libraries as well.  That way, you can find resources that other people are reading, and add them to your own collection.  (You can make references private or just share them with particular users, if you don’t want them available to all Connotea users.)  You can join or start a user group, which allows users to collaborate on research by sharing citations to resources they are reading.  One really fun feature: Connotea supports geotagging.  You can input coordinates that are associated with an article, and then map those coordinates on Google Earth.  The guide to Connotea is here.

Mendeley

Mendeley is another free reference manager, but it is also an academic social network.  (There is also a premium version that is not free, which offers more storage space and other features.)  Mendeley is designed for scientists, but it is not restricted for their use. Mendeley works with some other citation management software packages.  For instance, if you already have a Zotero database of references, you can import that into Mendeley, instead of adding everything from scratch.  The social network aspect of Mendeley was designed to help manage papers written by teams of scientists.  Not only can you create a Group and share references with them, but Group members can also annotate and comment on shared references.  Private groups can be created so that you can share paper drafts and other private communication with select users.  Mendeley also offers tools for following research trends, and for amassing statistics on the use of your articles.  The Getting Started Guide is here.

Aigaion

Aigaion is another free citation manager; what sets it apart is its ability to structure information via topic trees. As with most of the other programs mentioned here, Aigaion  – which is named for a hundred-handed monster in The Iliad – allows you to create references, add notes, and save attachments to references.  It also allows you to share your citations with others.  It works on most platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux).  One of the things I really like about it is that it has a very simple interface.  No logos everywhere to distract you.  No unnecessary tabs and buttons.  Just a simple page that lists the information that will appear in your citation.  I think a lot can be said for the minimalist approach, when you need to sit down and write.  Stop with the eye candy and just get on with it!

Here are two other tools that might help you when you are working on a paper:

Focus booster

Focus booster is a free program you can run online or download onto your computer.  It is a very simple timer.  It is preset to run for 25 minutes, and then five minutes: that’s 25 minutes of work, with a five minute break.  And then, when you get through four cycles of that, you can take a longer break of 15-20 minutes.  It’s great for forcing yourself to just do some work already.  You’ve researched everything.  You’ve got all the information you need.  It’s time to get to work – and this might be just the tool to help you do it.  The timer shows a progress bar across the bottom, so you have a visual cue of how much longer you need to concentrate, or how much longer you have on your break.

Q10, FocusWriter, and OmmWriter

You need to write.  But every time you use Word, you get distracted by the features.  The bullet points.  The fonts.  The grammar checker.  Indents that never land right where they should. You write three sentences, and then you spend 25 minutes making them look just perfect.

Give it a rest already.  Just write.  (Write First. Format Later.) Q10 and FocusWriter are simple text editors.  They take up your whole screen, so you can’t be distracted by things happening in your toolbar.  They count words as you type.  Q10 has an alarm, if you want to set a timer on a writing session.  FocusWriter counts how many minutes you’ve typed in a day, if you want to set a daily goal. They are free and simple.  Q10 works on Windows; FocusWriter works on Windows, Mac, and Linux.

If you want a simple text editor, but with a comforting color palette and some ambient music to calm your soul, there’s OmmWriter.

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